0404 Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant in a scene from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

The lists are fun but for this week they are going out the window. No more lists for a while.

This week, I want to concentrate on the beauty of cinema. The word cinema is used for films or movies that are often better than the rest.

In one of the most beautiful and soulful films in years, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” brings closeness, desire and passion to the cinema landscape.

Although the film can be found on Hulu since there are no theaters currently in operation, make no mistake “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a cinematic experience worthy of the name.

To be upfront, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a french film with english subtitles. There are many who will not watch foreign films and that is a little sad and disappointing. This is mostly because the audience is missing out on some truly great films, like “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” takes place in France, circa 1770. The lead character is Marianne, a painter who is commissioned to do the wedding portrait of Héloïse, a young woman who has just left the convent and whose family wants to see her married off. This practice was very common in the 1770s.

Héloïse is a reluctant bride to be unwilling for her image to be captured by the brush. Hence, Marianne is given the difficult mission to paint Héloïse without her knowledge. For Héloïse, being painted cements her future marriage as a certainty, a certainty she does not want to be a part of.

Marianne observes Héloïse by day to memorize details and paint her secretly from memory.

Noémie Merlant plays Marianne and Adèle Haenel plays Héloïse. The pair are French actors who many will not know prior to this film.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a love story. In all seriousness it should go down in cinema history as one of the greatest love stories. However, it is not an overt or overpowering love story.

In a man’s world, especially in film, when a love story is written or directed by a man, you often get these grand or overpowering moments or gestures “to prove love.” For example, think, “Say Anything” or “The Notebook.” These types of films show love as something that is won. Won by gestures or words that profess or show that love.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is not that type of love story. There is no profession or gesture of emotion. There is simply the emotion.

In reality, love is rarely ever captured or taken. Love is developed. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a developed love story and that is so much better than the other types of love stories. It captures love between its two lead characters out of glances and stares and the experience of each other.

The director and writer, Céline Sciamma, has said that “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a “manifesto about the female gaze.” This is clearly her intent when one watches the film. The female gaze is a film theoretical term representing the gaze of the female viewer.

What is the female gaze? The female gaze is often more emotional and intimate. The counterpart, the male gaze, is often more showy looking. To give context, just think of any scene you can remember where a scantily clad woman is ogled over by the camera. This is the male gaze.

The female gaze sees people as simply people. It seeks not to objectify a person or character but to empathize with a person or character. In “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” this can very clearly be seen in the portrait of Héloïse.

The first portrait of Héloïse is bad. Marianne, who in the beginning of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is shown to be a very talented and accomplished painter, misses the mark in the initial go-around.

Why? Well, the first portrait of Héloïse lacks emotion. The first portrait is bland and basic. When Héloïse sees the first painting she is agast. She says it looks nothing like her. This bad painting makes Héloïse want to be a part of the process. After this moment the pair begin to spend much more time together and get to know one another.

The process of learning about each other and becoming close with one another leads to the pair falling in love.

There is little lusting or overt sexual tension in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” because those are not a part of the female gaze.

“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a love story through knowing and closeness, not one through lust. This is a large part of the beauty behind “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

This can also be seen in the actual portrait of Héloïse. In the beginning when Marianne was not close to or knew little about Héloïse, the portrait was bad. In the end when Marianne got to know, became close to, or loved Héloïse, the portrait was stunning and beautiful.

What changed? The details changed.

The more Marianne knew, learned and became close to her the more Marianne saw Héloïse.

Sciamma is not at all interested in the shame value or any shock value. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is not that kind of film. No, Sciamma wants to show the genuine bonds that form.

Sciamma also never gets preachy with the feminst tones of the film. In one of the more complex and meaningful scenes, the three women, including Luàna Bajrami’s Sophie, read Ovid’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” They read it out loud, while each listen as the poet describes Orpheus looking backward on his way out of Hades. The look backwards dooms Eurydice to the underworld, who is the lover of Orpheus.

The three women try to figure out the meaning of this event in the book.

Héloïse says, “Eurydice told Orpheus to turn back to look at her.”

Marianne sees things differently and says, “He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.

Marianne says, “He chooses the memory of her.”

In essence, this tells everything you need to know about “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

Sciemma allows the love and sisterhood to grow as organically or natural as possible and she creates a beautifully tragic love story.

What Sciemma has created is cinema history and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a love story for the ages.

What makes it so? Simply, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” does not make the choice to show lovers but chooses to show love.

There is nothing more beautiful than that.


Jason Guyer is an avid moviegoer and works in the graphics department at the Eagle Times. For questions or comments he can be emailed at guyerj@eagletimes.com.

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